The Blood-bag: Patterns of Blood-bags and Narcissists in Tech

We’ve written about narcissists and blood-bags, and how to cut the IV line tying you to a narcissist. In this post, we will talk about narcissists and blood-bags in tech and how the dynamic we’ve written about plays out in the workplace, in open source or in other other areas of tech. These posts are written by Marlena Compton and Valerie Aurora and are drawn from our experiences at work and in different software communities.

The organizational blood-bag

While there is now more understanding about individual behaviors that contribute to toxic workplaces and communities (e.g., The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton), less is understood about toxic relationship dynamics and how they play into toxic workplaces. We learn all of our relationship patterns in our families of origin and bring them to work or to our chosen communities every day. As this relates to narcissism, it means that for every abusive, narcissistic boss or community leader, there are always one or more blood-bags who clean up after them, ensure that marching orders are followed (however unreasonable), and enforce a system that will keep the narcissist and by extension, their blood-bag or group of blood-bags in place.

In the workplace, this typically manifests as the horrible boss and their assistant who keeps things somewhat grounded and moving around them. A famous example is Steve Jobs and his former blood-bag, now Apple CEO, Tim Cook.

In a community setting such as a religious or professional community, this relationship often involves a narcissist surrounded by a set of blood-bags who keep their toxic leader in place. In a professional community, this might involve the board of a professional association, editors of any community publications and organizers of any community conferences. In exchange for endless explaining away of bad behavior and covering-up of abuse, this particular set of blood-bags are reaping their own benefits, often in the forms of money, organizational power and professional influence. The abuse flows downward from here.

The narcissist mentor and their blood-bag mentee

A particularly hard to spot, but damaging occurrence of the narcissist/blood-bag dynamic is in a mentor/mentee relationship. In this case, a benevolent narcissist mentors someone with the goal of reflecting glory back on themselves. This requires that the mentee always does things the narcissist’s way, the mentee credits the narcissist, and the mentee never surpasses the narcissist. Since everything the mentee learns must be approved by the narcissist and done their way, the narcissist pulls the mentee closer and closer under their control. What is particularly sad is that the more the mentee learns and becomes aware, the further they are from receiving the approval from the narcissist they so desperately crave.

The movie, Spy, is a great illustration of this type of relationship. In the opening scene of the film Melissa McCarthy’s character, Susan, directs Jude Law’s character, Bradley, through an obstacle course of gunfire and explosions. It’s fairly obvious that a major reason Bradley is able to do his job is because of Susan’s direction and excellent quick judgement.

Later, we learn that Bradley was Susan’s mentor at Spy school and that he was the one who told her that she should take a desk job instead of being out in the field.

“You got sniped,” the Spy Boss, played by Allison Janney, later tells Susan.

The open source blood-bag

Free and open source software has plenty of narcissist/blood-bag relationships. Some open source narcissists have entire foundations to provide their narcissistic supply of speaking invitations, people to verbally abuse and humiliate, and media coverage. One common form this takes is a project maintainer who has stopped doing work for the project other than making nasty comments on other people’s code (as distinct from providing constructive code reviews). Another form is the “evangelist” who has never contributed code, reported bugs, designed interfaces, written documentation or demos, triaged bugs, organized an event, or answered support questions, but who speaks about the project at conferences, or gives interviews to reporters explaining the project. (Again, this is distinct from someone who is an evangelist but has also contributed to the project in some non-trivial way, which describes many excellent evangelists we know.) Usually this kind of narcissist evangelist joins the project after it is clear it will be a success.

A blood-bag in an open source project is often the quiet, retiring, introverted second-in-command who tirelessly merges patches, tests new buggy code, fixes un-glamorous bugs, and cuts new releases. They’ll often write the test suite, or add code to catch code errors before they get committed, or update the documentation that was beneath the notice of the rock star. The narcissist will rarely praise this quiet, hard-working blood-bag and may even start abusing them more if they become worried about the blood-bag posing a threat to their power. Occasionally the blood-bag will figure out that things will never get better and quit — usually quietly, usually moving on to a similar position elsewhere. Most often, they continue doing their job efficiently and silently, reasoning that they are lucky to have a job in open source, or get to work on a project that affects so many lives.

Another kind of blood-bag in open source organizes conferences, writes documentation, serves on foundation boards, or triages bug reports. They often don’t take any public credit. Many conference web pages won’t tell you who is on the organizing committee, or who is on the speaker selection committee, or who organized accessibility and childcare. What makes this worse is that this kind of work is nearly always unpaid volunteer work, so the only possible recompense is public credit. If you ever see a conference larger than a couple dozen people with only one or two people credited on the web site, that’s a likely sign that either (1) they are paying their conference staff (a good thing), (2) the people credited don’t have enough experience to know they need to credit the volunteer staff, or (3) the conference is run by a narcissist who isn’t giving credit appropriately.

Software and narcissism

While we’ve talked about the relationship between a narcissist and their blood-bag at an organizational level, it’s worth considering how this often plays out in the software industry. At an industry level, software developers and software executives are in the position of narcissist, with the entire rest of the industry focused around supporting them.

In reframing the position of developer as the narcissist, consider all of the supporting positions as blood-bags in orbit around them: testing, support, product/project management, sales, marketing, documentation, line management, security, and community management.

Remember, a narcissist is someone who is enormously self-absorbed due to strong feelings of inadequacy at their core. Software development tends to make people feel inadequate constantly, which can intensify narcissism (or co-narcissism or depression or low self-worth). This tweet summarizes the experience of developing software.

A blood-bag is someone who uses all their energy for care and feeding of the narcissist, propping them up and tirelessly working all hours to support them.

The narcissist/blood-bag pattern is fractal: within each of these communities, there are narcissists and blood-bags. While software testing as a field is in the position of blood-bag to the software development, it’s worth considering how the dynamic of narcissist and blood-bag has played out in the leadership of that particular industry.

Can a narcissist or group of narcissists hold back an entire industry? If a narcissist can keep their blood-bag tied up so tightly in a personal relationship, there is not much stopping a particularly smart and talented narcissist from keeping an industry right where they want it.

Marginalized groups and narcissism

Have you ever noticed that while software development overall is highly skewed towards men, there are relatively more women in every associated role except developers and executives? Software testing, documentation, line managers, customer support: we’re betting that in your experience, these roles tend to have more women. This is true for members of many marginalized and underrepresented groups and it is related to oppression overall. This same narcissist/blood-bag dynamic is more likely to play out with a member of a marginalized group. While Asian and Pacific Islanders tend to be better represented in software development roles, there’s a glass ceiling for them too when they try to move into management. Software executive remains a role heavily dominated by (straight cis abled etc.) white men.

Stop supporting narcissists

Now that you’ve learned about what narcissists and blood-bags are, and how they harm communities, we want to ask you to stop supporting narcissists. We want you to stop doing this even if the work you do that supports narcissists is having some other positive effect, like giving access to computers to more people, making encrypted communication accessible to more people or helping people begin new tech careers in areas such as software testing. Narcissists like to make themselves seem indispensable, like the whole project will fall apart if they disappear. That’s almost never true — there’s always one or more blood-bags behind the scenes who are doing all the actual crucial work holding the project together. If enough of your colleagues refuse to support a narcissist, it is possible to get them out of the project and to have a healthier, more productive community that does MORE good in the world.

But even if you can’t get rid of a narcissist in the community you’re currently working with, you can find some other project that fits with your values and goals. Maybe you can start a new one, and implement all the checks and balances outlined in the “No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech” post by Leigh Honeywell, Mary Gardiner, and Valerie Aurora.

We are asking all the blood-bags out there to cut the IV lines that are keeping narcissists in your communities powerful and influential. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the new people in the community who don’t deserve to be harmed this way.